(P.32) Crystal Palace The guest of honour has long since departed in haste. Does that mean the party's over in SE19, asks Charles Jennings.

Hole in the heart

There's no gate at Notting Hill Gate. There's no chase at Wimbledon Chase. London is all washed up with ghost names, flotsam of places that used to be. But you find me another name with quite the same resonances as Crystal Palace. You find me a place where a hundred years ago there wasn't just some patch of heath or a midget bridge, but a thing like a cathedral of light, in and around which were a zoo, five hundred tons of glass, water towers 300 feet high - and which went up like a firework, the whole lot, November, 1936. The gutters of Sydenham ran with a kind of lava while Paxton's dream exploded, taking the Age of Empire with it as hostage.

And all you can do now is "ponder, darling, these busted statues". Some little bluffs of stonework, lodged in the grass, plus a few well thumbed Sphinxes and a headless Tudor sculpture in the shadow of the transmitter. That and the homage to Paxton in the cool vestibular extension to the railway station, with 20th century factory mesh to keep the mob from tangling. Oh, and the giggling plaster dinosaurs down the Lower Lake; plesiosaurs in two feet of black water, iguanodons like an opium dream. But otherwise the rest hangs "in memoriam" all round the park and the neighbouring roads with their huge Victorian villas. Even Crystal Palace football team, that's gone too, off to Selhurst Park down the road. They used to have the Cup Final here, in another century. And the dinky postwar motor race track that jinks in and out of the shrubbery? It's given up trying in the face of the rain and the remorseless grass. Back in 65 they were flogging round this miniature suburban circuit, old railway sleepers to bounce the cars off, rhododendrons spilling petals onto the scorched tarmac. Now, just something to walk the dog on.

The only thing that's left is this dumb National Sports Centre, where I once got hauled off to as a schoolboy to watch strange denatured men and women chase around the oval track. It was an evening meeting, the way I remember it. The place holds 17,000, but there couldn't have been more than a thousand of us weirdos sitting in the fridge-like stadium seats, watching nothing much take place in fits and starts. And the Bowl, I nearly forgot the Bowl, where summer music takes place on a floating stage surmounted by a huge flat rusty roof, like a cereal packet ripped open and tipped on its side. Used to be a little Venus from-the-waves acoustic shell, in the old days. Eric Clapton played there; or Bob Marley.

So it's not a void, the space in the middle of Crystal Palace. It's not the complete disappearance of something that makes it one of those London palimpsests. It's the dwindling remains that make you frown - that and the way they look so lost in the everyday world, while the streets of Sydenham, Penge, Norwood, spiral apathetically out from the hill where the palace stood: cars for sale, burgers, boozers, bus queues, junk shops, street corner newsagents, the south London shambles. Well, they're not to know, are they? About the lost citadel next to the 202 bus route? I mean, how could they?


Over 100 acres of open space, with some of the best views in London and the ruins of the Crystal Palace for the romantic. The National Sports Centre has top-class sports facilities. The Victorians loved the place, so the area is covered in pretty villas. Good train links and shopping. Reasonable house prices.


The name Crystal Palace applies to the park and the station; in reality, you'll be living in Anerley, Fox Hill, Westow Hill, Penge or Sydenham. To complicate things further, four boroughs bump into each other, so council tax varies wildly, and parking restrictions and house prices vary street to street. Traffic congestion is a perennial gripe, and council plans to jazz up the park aren't popular with locals (see Coming soon).


Not really celeb-land, but expect to see a few famous athletes at the stadium in the park. Big houses and modern developments suit families, but rail links and flat conversions attract young singles.


Prices can fluctuate wildly as you cross the street from one borough to another; the right road could save you hundreds of pounds a year in council tax alone - and schools can also affect the desirability of well-situated homes. Most homes are Victorian and, especially around the park, there are some very large homes that have escaped

conversion to flats: a five bedroom semidetached house in Maberley Road is £410,000. Many have been divided into flats with very manageable price tags: a two-bedroom maisonette in Farquhar Road, a few minutes walk from the park, is £151,500. Crystal Palace and its hinterland are fertile hunting ground for cheap flats. A one-bedroom flat in Becondale Road, in the Gipsy Hill area, is £95,000; in the same street, a three bedroom maisonette with a garden rises to £195,000. £63,500 could buy you a one-bedroom flat in a Victorian house on Highview Road, not far from the popular Westow Park triangle. Be aware that the Crystal Palace name hides a multitude of border areas - for instance a two-bedroom flat in a purpose-built block on Maple Road at £89,995 is really in Penge.

coming soon

£150m of investment is heading for Crystal Palace, though it seems less than welcome. Plans for a "new Crystal Palace" in the park, with a cinema, leisure facilities and restaurants, have been bitterly opposed by many residents - the council evicted protestors after a year-long occupation. It's going ahead, though, for completion in summer 2001, following the restoration of the park.


Five boroughs converge on Crystal Palace. Check with Bromley, Lambeth, Croydon, Southwark and Lewisham.

London location:

estate agents

Halifax Property Services 0181-761 5520; Kinleigh Folkard and Hayward 0181-761 0900; Your Move 0181-771 6211; Wates 0181-771 1357.

Area information - Claire Phipps
Photographs by Bjorn Tiedemann - not included here(but see e.g.
'trees'). However, the caption is certainly worth repeating: "Where once stood one of the glories of architecture, there now lies rather genteel Ozymandian (see 'Ozymandias')ruins....With the centre gone, what's left is perhaps not enough to maintain the place's notoriety. Nice dinosaurs though...."

Top of page; Return to Publications index

Last updated: 7/04/00